How Research Can Be Bought and Sold: An Interview

My social media were flooded yesterday with reports of a study, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, that found that even casual use of marijuana can lead to structural changes in the nucleus accumbens and amygdala. The study is stirring significant debate, because it seems to prove that marijuana – largely thought to be relatively benign – actually causes brain “abnormalities,” even if you only smoke once a week.

Besides the fact that these structural brain changes don’t necessarily indicate damage of any sort, alarms should immediately go off when you see who funded the study: the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). These are all U.S. federal agencies. As part of the U.S. Federal Government, these agencies consider marijuana, as a Schedule I substance, to have high potential for abuse and to have no medical applications.

Reefer Madness, an American propaganda film from the 1930s, portrays first-time marijuana users as descending into violence and insanity.

Why is this problematic for research? Because these institutions, and the NIDA in particular, thwart any objective research on scheduled substances. The NIDA has both a clear agenda of proving Schedule I substances to be harmful and the monetary power to ensure that only research that supports their agenda gets funded. That means that if you’re not going to couch your research in terms of a drug’s potential for abuse – or worse, if you’re going to show that a drug isn’t harmful – you’re simply not going to get the money you need to do your research.

But what might surprise you is that if your findings go against these institutions’ agenda, your funding might actually get pulled.

I am here including an interview I conducted with a researcher who has experienced this first-hand. This researcher carried out NIDA-funded research on a Schedule I substance at an elite university, and when their results showed this substance to be harmless, their funding was cut and their research was stopped.

This researcher asked that I withhold their name, the name of their research institution, and the name of the drug they researched so that this interview would not jeopardize their scientific career.

Q: Let’s start with what your research was about. What were you investigating?

A: We were investigating a Schedule I substance to determine potential neurodegenerative or neurogenerative effects, specifically in the serotonin system. Overall, this was supposed to be a way of evaluating potential harm or non-harm as a result of consuming this particular substance. This chemical had not been really seriously investigated since the early 80’s. One of the major issues with this Schedule I substance is that it’s not something actively looked upon in academia as a serious vein of research. There’s not a lot of funding in it. Not a lot of academic interest. And researching it can put a black flag on your career. Not officially, but that’s something that’s understood.

Q: Tell me about your funding. Was the NIDA your only source of funding?

A: We had funding from multiple sources. We had funding from the institution we were working under. We had funding from another smaller group. But a big portion of funding was from the NIDA.

Q: How did you phrase your research proposal to the NIDA? Did you frame it in terms of studying how this substance might be abused?

A: There had been previous research that there might be some negative physiological effects associated with using this substance. Our research was specifically to investigate this because our feeling was that there hadn’t been very rigorous study on this issue and that there were some avenues that hadn’t been investigated and some things that needed confirming. There had been research on this substance but there were issues with previous studies that we wanted to investigate.

Q: What led the NIDA to pull funding?

A: This is going to get complicated because it’s fairly specific. The NIDA had started to increase funding into research into a number of substances. They were really looking for negative physical effects. But our preliminary findings were fairly strictly negative across the board, meaning that we hadn’t found any harmful physical effects up to a fairly high dosage. This was in contradiction to previous research. In non-scientific terms, you could say that our findings didn’t toe the party line. That’s very much my personal opinion. As you know, the NIDA is connected to the federal government’s purview of drug policy institutions. It’s very much connected to the DEA side of things. There are a number of governmental groups like this.

As I said, our preliminary findings were strictly negative until a fairly high dosage. And we’re talking about dosages significantly higher than what other studies had reported as being harmful. That means that ignoring psychological effects, it was possible for a human user to take a “normal” dosage of this substance without any harmful physiological effects. And that means that some medical concerns associated with this substance may not be warranted.

That was our preliminary finding. At the same time, our lab had also been working on another research study that I wasn’t involved in. Their results were coming out sooner than ours. They had very similar results, which also were not in line with federal policy.

Here’s where things get a little less clear. Essentially, as funding was due to be extended, our lab was contacted and told that our funding wasn’t going to be renewed. There was little explanation as to why. None of it was very clear. Any follow-up hit a brick wall.

The next part is my interpretation of events. My belief and feeling is that probably somebody further up the chain of funding was probably reviewing programs and after looking at our overall scientific output, in terms of papers and studies, saw that we generally did not toe the party line, as I said. What I think happened is that as a result of this, when the decision came down about funding, they decided they weren’t going to extend funding. The reason I feel this is the case is because our lab was well respected. We were well respected even in this vein of research. This wasn’t something new for us. Other labs were also doing research in a very similar vein but they had a history of putting out papers that had, like I said, toed the party line. In other words, some other labs were finding that this Schedule I substance had an extreme harmful physical effect on model animals as well as on humans, and so their funding was extended. It’s not proof positive, but there’s a strong indication there that the reason our funding was cut was not due to scientific reasoning alone. That’s definitely my feeling on the topic. It can be debated. But that’s how some others in my group felt. Others hinted that that’s how they felt, but were too politically cautious to say so outright.

Q: Did you fight the decision?

A: We looked into it. But there’s no way to fight. The funding is gone, they made their decision. We stopped that research because their funding was crucial to our operations.

Q: Did you have to sign anything saying you wouldn’t talk about this?

A: No. That’s why I can talk to you about it. What concerns me is that if my identity were revealed, or even what project I was working on gets revealed, it could be very harmful to a number of people and their careers. Because a significant portion of research on Schedule I substances is supported by the NIDA, you don’t want to publicly speak out against it if you want to research these substances.

I could delve into the faulty assumptions of the recent study on the negative effects of moderate cannabis consumption, but this interview should give you enough reason to suspect its findings. The bottom line is that these sorts of studies are funded because they perpetuate commonly held myths about the dangers of drugs. As Columbia neuroscientist Carl Hart has pointed out again and again, the problem with drugs isn’t drug addiction or even the physiological damage that drugs might cause. The problem with drugs is drug policy. And it’s this misguided policy that’s driving our research.

Please share this interview. As always, I appreciate your comments, which you can leave below.

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